Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon

"The Maltese Falcon"  *** (out of ****)

Not so fast! It's not "The Maltese Falcon" you are thinking of. This is the 1931 film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel directed by Roy Del Ruth starring Richard Cortez and Bebe Daniels.

Of course when film lovers hear "The Maltese Falcon" they think of the 1941 version directed by John Huston (his directorial debut) starring Humphrey Bogart. That version is great. A classic. But, I thought it would be interesting to review this version instead, if, for any other reason, it is rare and is a curiosity piece.

The danger in discussing this movie as well as seeing it, is most people have seen the Humphrey Bogart version first and will compare this movie to that one. If you do that, many will say this 1931 isn't as good. That's a mistake. I know it's difficult, but, try not to think of the other version. Watch this movie on its own merits. Accept the actors in these roles. If you are able to do that then this version is entertaining and not without its own charm.

Richard Cortez plays detective Samuel Spade who runs an agency with this partner, Miles Archer (Walter Long, a familiar face to Laurel & Hardy fans. Long would play the "heavy" against them). One day a woman, Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels, best know for her role in the musical "42nd Street" (1933), she comes into their office with a story about her sister who has run off with a man she fears is holding her hostage. She would like Spade or Archer to trail the man in order to find her sister. Spade and Archer are skeptical of her story but when she offers to pay them two hundred dollars for the job, they agree.

Meeting Ruth turns out to be the worst thing that can happen to the detectives. Later that night Archer is killed, which is convenient for Spade, who was fooling around with Archer's wife, Iva (Thelma Todd). Archer was killed following the man Ruth told them about. Who killed Archer? Adding more mystery to the situation Ruth admits she lied about having a sister and wanted the men to scare this secret man.

The plot thickens when Sr. Cairo (Otto Matieson) and Casper Gutman (Dudley Diggos) enter the picture. They both inform Spade of a "black bird" they are searching for which they believe Spade is in possession of. It is a valuable statute which Spade suspects Ruth has and is the real reason she wanted his help.

As detective stories of the 1930s go, there were also Philo Vance stories such as "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933) and a little later the "Thin Man" series, "The Maltese Falcon" is worth watching. Because it was made in 1931 it is "pre-code", a time when movies were able to get away with more sexually suggestive material. The first scene in the movie shows a woman walking out of Spade's office. The camera go in for a close up of her legs as she adjust her stockings. Another scene shows Ruth taking a bath. It is implied she has slept with Spade. And it is implied Spade has or had a relationship with his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel). Some have even suggested there are homosexual undertones, though I reject that notion.

Though I wouldn't call "The Maltese Falcon" a great movie. Some of it has to do with the director Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth was a good studio director churning out several movies a year. He is mostly known for the musicals he directed such as "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor and "Happy Landing" (1938) with Sonja Henie. He also directed a Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940)  and he directed another "pre-code" goodie, "Blonde Crazy" (1931) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. But I don't think he was the right director for this. He doesn't get the most out of this material. He doesn't create much suspense or get much out of his actors. He doesn't have a great artistic eye, which is why I prefer his lighter fare.

Cortez and Daniels are good together but I didn't feel chemistry between them. You don't really believe the two are in love with each other.

What viewers will like about this movie is a suggestive sexual nature of it. I have heard some say Cortez was better in this role than Bogart because his character is more ruthless whereas Boagrt was more sensitive. I didn't see it that way. I think Bogart was a better actor than Cortez and was more interesting to watch on-screen. Maybe if "The Maltese Falcon" had better, more famous actors I might have enjoyed it more.

Still, the movie has its own charms. It is not a waste of time. It is a quaint detective story with little suspense and decent acting.

[Interesting Note: In order to avoid confusion with the 1941 version, the movie was re-titled "The Dangerous Female". If you are looking to buy the movie search both titles.]

Monday, March 24, 2014

Film Review: Our Women

"Our Women"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Relationships are pretty difficult to sustain. We seem to live in a culture where everyone is looking for love but no one can find it. People are too busy with their careers. They aren't over an ex. They aren't ready to commit. They need more "me" time, there are so many things they want to do. They don't want to "settle". And yet for others they feel they are getting older. Time is running out.

The Hungarian comedy "Our Women" (Nejem, nom, csajom, 2014) deals with these issues but does so from a female perspective. It is the women that want the relationships. They are the ones looking for love. They are the ones that go to great lengths to maintain happy relationships as they deal with difficult men. Women are the ones that make all the sacrifices.

I reject this notion as a single thirty-something male living in a big city. My own experiences have shaped the opinion it is the women that aren't ready to commit. The only reason I am single is because I meet women who aren't ready to commit. They don't know who they are or what they want out of life yet. They want to focus on their career. They aren't over an ex. Though, I suppose that doesn't sell movie tickets. It doesn't feed into the stereotype the media has been feeding us for years. Men are suppose to be the ones that are afraid to commit and women are the delicate ones looking for love.

In "Our Women", which played at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, we follow four women in interconnecting story-lines, as each tries to maintain a relationship and keep domestic bliss. There is Helga (Judit Schell) a newsreporter who has been dating Jozsef (Peter Rudolf) for two months. They have not slept together yet and it is driving Helga crazy. What is he hiding? Is he married? But Helga is of a certain age and wants to have a child. Whatever Jozsef's secret is he better tell her quickly because her biological clock is ticking and she can't waste her time with a man that is available and doesn't want to have children.

Next there is Vera (Agi Gubik) who is married to Attila (Andras Stohl). They have a five year old son together and it has dawn on Attila the child is nothing like him. Their son gets beat up in school and paints pictures of flowers. Attila begins to wonder if the child is his. Does Vera have some secret she is keeping from Attila? Did she cheat on him?

Rounding out the two remaining stories are Szilvi (Rozi Lovas) and Flora (Katya Tompos). Szilvi lives with Balint (Bela Meszaros). She wants to have a baby but Balint thinks they should get married first. And before they get married Balint wants to sleep with other women first. He can't imagine himself sleeping with only one woman for the rest of his sleep. Instead he wants them to become swingers. They meet another couple; Emma (Patricia Kovacs) and Robert (Zoltan Schmied). Flora is married to Peter (Tamas Keresztes). Both are very conservative and religious. Flora however suspects Peter may be seeing a prostitute. He leaves in the afternoon on unexpected appointments.

The movie was directed by Peter Szajki and is only his second feature film. "Our Women" was quite the success in Hungary and it is easy to see why. This is a funny, light-hearted romantic comedy. It tries to create a balance and explore some issues in a more dramatic detail while finding the humor in what we all go through to fall in love.

Americans might recognize Judit Schell from everyone in the cast. She was in another Hungarian romantic comedy "Just Sex and Nothing Else" (Csak szex es mas semmi, 2006) which was released in America. And in some ways the movies are similar. In both movies she plays a older woman looking for love, wanting to have a baby. While the other actors are not known to us, they are quite good. I especially like Agi Gubik and Rozi Lovas. Gubik adds a little more dramatic depth to her character and Lovas seems perfectly suited for romantic comedy.

The weakest story of the bunch may be Flora and Peter's. Their plot isn't really terribly interesting when compared to the others and isn't given as much screen time and detail as the other stories.

"Our Women" is the kind of movie which should have a cross-over appeal and entertain American audiences. It is disappointing the movie has not been distributed in America yet. The movie was released in Hungary two years ago. Sadly there is no market here for Hungarian movies. Over the years I have seen several Hungarian movies at the EU Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival which have been very entertaining and powerful films and unfortunately none of them have been released here. People don't know what they are missing out on. Too bad. "Our Women" is a delightful romantic comedy with some laughs.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Film Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

"Nymphomaniac"  *** (out of ****)

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has released another controversial film, "Nymphomaniac" (2014). The film has been divided into two parts or volumes. Volume one has been released this weekend.

Once upon a time Lars von Trier was a filmmaker I respected a great deal. He rattled me. He makes bold, daring films which challenge the conventions of what cinema can show us, themes to explore. He hit "mainstream" with "Breaking the Waves" (1996) a very engaging film about love, sex and God, though not in that order. He followed up with "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), "Dogville" (2004) and "Antichrist" (2009). I was an admirer of "Waves", "Dancer", "Dogville"- I placed it on my top ten list that year and "Manderlay" (2006) his sequel to "Dogville", he lost me with "Antichrist" which just pushed me a bit too far. For example there were scenes of genital mutilation which disturbed me but at least he got a reaction out of me. Then he released "Melancholia" (2011) which, well, there's no other way to say it, bored the life out of me. And now we have "Nymphomaniac".

Given the title it shouldn't surprise anyone when I say the movie is about a nymphomaniac named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is lying on the ground bloody and beaten in a courtyard when a resident, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) notices her and offers to bring her into his apartment for a cup of tea, at her request. There in his apartment she tells him her story. Not just why she was lying on the ground in the courtyard, they never get to that, I presume that will be discussed in volume two, but the story of her life is told in relation to her sexuality and multiple sexual encounters and her meeting what may prove to be the love of her life, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).

The movie is released as "not rated" though if it were it would most definitely receive an NC-17 rating due to the explicit sexual nature of the film. Though it is the cause of the controversy surrounding the picture, I was left indifferent. Not just indifferent to the sex scenes but to the picture as a whole. That is very surprising. Lars von Trier doesn't normally make movies which don't get a reaction out of you. Either you love them or hate him. You don't sit there in the middle pondering both sides yet that's my reaction to this film.

The movie is neither interesting nor boring to me. It is neither erotic or titillating to me yet I wouldn't say it is neither of those things to someone else. It goes on too long yet I felt it ended too abruptly. The sexual scenes didn't shock though I could see how they might shock others. The movie merely exist to look at but I felt nothing as I sat in the movie theatre. I wasn't as bored as I was watching "Melancholia", "Nymphomaniac" is told with a bit more energy, but like the main character in the movie, I was left wanting more.

Joe tells us about her parents (Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen) and her relationship with them. She loved her father, a doctor, who thought her about nature, in particular ash trees, his favorite. She disliked her mother whom she describes as "cold" and "cowardly" among other adjectives I'm not allowed to print. She tells us the early age she discovered her "female parts" (age two) and her first sexual experience (age 15) with Jerome. We learn of a game she and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) played to see which one would sleep with the most boys in a single day. They would board a train and try to get men to take them to the bathroom to have sex with. Whoever slept with the most men by the time they reached their destination would win a bag full of chocolates. I always knew women liked chocolate but I guess I didn't realize how much.

We learn how Joe is unable to keep track of all the men in her life. Within one day she could sleep with as many as five people. They just wait their turn, like taking a number at a deli. Sometimes situations get ugly, like when one of the men Joe has been sleeping with leaves his wife and children for her. The wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) arrives at Joe's apartment, with her children, to introduce them to Joe and to make sure the children understand what their father is doing. To some this would be an example of "dark humor" which von Trier is engaging in. We can understand Mrs. H's feelings but we also look on with pity. She is causing emotion scars her children may never forget.

And so it continues for two hours. A couple of sex scenes followed by some scenes with Joe and her father and then a few more sex scenes. During all of this Joe and Seligman will interrupt the flow of the story and try to show correlations between Joe's behavior and fly fishing or musical composition. These moments are a little heavy-handed as if trying to make Joe's behavior poetic. There is art to what she is doing. It is like the story of the director who likes to shoot movies of pretty girls naked and says, it is not porn, it's art. And so it is with Lars von Trier. "Nymphomaniac" is not porn. I'll admit that but it is not great art to me either and when he tries to draw all these connections it seems a bit pretentious.

It may be unfair to review this movie while volume two is yet to be released but is that my fault or Lars von Trier's? Why not just release the movie as one four hour long feature film? It is a nice way to make double the money as now we all have to go back and buy another ticket. Still, I have to admit volume one made no real lasting impression on me. Individuals who declare "masterpiece" are over selling the film. Those that declare the movie is "trash" and / or "porn" aren't being fair. I'm somewhere in the middle. That's not a good place to be when watching a Lars von Trier movie. We'll see what volume two brings us.

Film Review: The Excursionist

"The Excursionist"  **** (out of ****)

There have been so many stories dealing with the cruel and harsh treatment so many had to endure due to Soviet Communism. After WW2 as the Soviets marched to Germany they never left the countries they had to go through to get there. They caused so much misery for so many people who never wanted them there to begin with.

The Lithuanian film "The Excursionist" (Ekskursante, 2014) is an emotionally gripping true story dealing with the hardships an 11 year old girl, Masha (Anastasija Marcenkaite) had to survive during this time.

The film premiered in Chicago at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival to a sold-out crowd. It is an remarkable achievement given to us by a country many Americans never look to for their cinematic pleasure. The fact that the movie is Lithuanian may be its only obstacle. While, it is true the screening was sold out that is only because a very active Lithuanian community in Chicago came out for the screening. Americans couldn't point to Lithuania on a map. To the American eyes countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are not really part of Europe. Europe is really only France, Italy, the United Kingdom and perhaps Germany and Spain. Because the movie is Lithuanian it will have limited appeal to American distributors, who will feel there is no market for this movie. However, if this movie were made in America, I'm willing to bet Oscar buzz would be circulating.

To put it simply the movie is a masterpiece. Masha, along with her mother, are on a train being sent to a gulag camp in Russia. The mother, who is pregant, dies before they arrive. With the help of some of the other passengers little Masha escapes and with the kindness of strangers must find her way back home to her village. Of course harboring a refugee is against the law. Especially someone who is not a member of the communist party.

Through the course of this journey, both emotional and physical, Masha meets good people along the way. People who will sacrifice themselves to help her. Of course, she meets more people who treat her cruely. Abuse her on an emotional, physical and most importantly, spiritual level. Our young hero is a Catholic. It is her faith and belief in doing the right thing which keeps her going. Through religion she find strength. She believes she will make it home.

Watching "The Excursionist" I am reminded of a Romanian movie directed by Nicolae Margineau, one of the great figures in Romanian cinema, called "Bless You Prison" (Binecuvantata fii inchisoare, 2002), I called it one of the best films of 2002 and one of the best movies of the last decade. These movies would make a very good double-bill, as both movies take place near the same time and deal with two characters who use their faith to get them through their horror.

The performance given by Anastasija Marcenkaite is incredible. What a gifted young actress she is. The entire movie rest on her shoulders. She has to express so much to the audience. The character endures so much pain and suffering, the movie really goes after our heartstrings, laying on the pathos. Still it is a challenging role. I am not familiar with this actress. I don't know if she has been in many Lithuanian films or not but she is a born actress. She will have quite the career ahead of her.

Director Audrius Juzenas has given us a masterpiece. I hope it finds distribution in America. This is one of the most powerful films I have seen this year.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Film Review: Le Week-end

"Le Weekend"  **** (out of ****)

Sadly while everyone will go see "Divergent" (2014) this weekend, Roger Michell, of "Notting Hill" (1999) and "Morning Glory" (2010) fame, released his latest film "Le Week-end" (2014) which will get lost in the shuffle. A shame. It is one of the year's best films.

"Le Week-end" is a charming British comedy/drama starring Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum. It continues the collaboration between Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. Previously the two worked on "Venus" (2006) with Peter O' Toole and "Mother" (2003), a very bold film, whose secrets I will not reveal.

Broadbent and Duncan play a married couple that have been together for 30 years. Celebrating their anniversary they go to Paris for the weekend. Any couple that has ever spent a weekend together will tell you, by the end of the experience you will learn a lot about each other. You may even learn things about each other neither one of you wanted to know. And so it is in "Le Week-end". The couple's bond will be tested. The movie covers a wide range of themes including love, death, age and commitment. These characters look back on their life and wonder, where has it all gone? What has their lives amounted to?

What makes "Le Week-end" such a treasure to behold is Kureishi's screenplay. It brims with life. This is a warm, human comedy which hits on universal truths. The dialogue rings true. The audience is able to relate to these characters. Their situation is believable. We know these characters. They are our parents, grandparents, maybe we even see ourselves in them. It is Kureishi and Michell's ability to flesh these characters out that makes the movie magical.

Broadbent and Duncan have great chemistry between. For as good as the screenplay and Michell's direction may be, credit must be given to the actors as well. Their interpretation of their characters is a driving force behind the success of the movie. Their every gesture, speech pattern seems well placed. They have become these people. Their acting has an almost naturalistic quality to it, especially Broadbent (who is an old Mike Leigh regular. Leigh's film have an improvised quality to them). Is he even acting? Did they just place the camera on him?

In the opening moments of "Le Week-end" we see Nick (Broadbent) and Meg (Duncan) on a train headed for Paris. They seem like a "comfortable" couple. Old and set in their ways. Nick frequently forgets where he has placed things and Meg constantly reminds him. They quarrel. Make snide remarks toward each other. But we sense Nick loves Meg. Meg on the other hand seems a bit difficult to read. She doesn't seem as content with her life as Nick. In fact throughout the movie you keep expecting one of them to say the marriage is over. They want a divorce. Naturally, I won't reveal if that happens. But soon the movie touches on, what keeps two people together? How do you "put up" with another person?

On this weekend getaway they run into an old friend of Nick's, someone who he went to Cambridge with, an American, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum). Morgan, now divorced, has moved to Paris, where he has remarried. He is living with his much younger wife and they are expecting a child. He is a famous author, and in honor of his new book, is having a party which he invites Nick and Meg to. The party will be the turning point. The moment when the couple will be faced with the truth. By the end of the evening, Nick and Meg will know where they stand with each other.

At the party there is flirtation and drinking and we sense Morgan is a bit of an old charmer himself, always remarking on Meg's beauty. Accusations are hurled and midnight trysts are promised. But what will it all lead to? Though don't think however this is a bedroom sex farce. There is no low brow humor. These are smart, educated people. They don't resort to such language.

Finally another star of the movie is Paris herself. Not since Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) has the city looked more beautiful. It is a prominent part of the movie. Paris is suppose to be the city of love and romance. Will the charms of Parisian life rub off on Nick and Meg? Will this enchanting city make them fall in love all over again?

"Le Week-end" has opened to much critical acclaim and was nominated for several British Independent Film Awards, including best film. Lindsay Duncan won a best actress award and Broadbent and Goldblum were both nominated in the best actor and supporting actor categories.

This is a charming, sweet, funny movie which I hope audiences find during its theatrical run. This is one of the year's best films.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Film Review: Divergent

"Divergent"  *** (out of ****)

The setting is Chicago, sometime in the distant future. There has been a great war, which has nearly destroyed civilization as we know it. In order to rebuild itself the world is now divided into five factions. Those factions are Abnegation, who represent the selfless, they govern this new world. Next there is Dauntless, they represent the brave, Erudite, who represent intellect, Candor, which represents honesty and finally Amity, which stands for peace. This is the world presented to us in "Divergent" (2014)

The way this new society works is individuals are given an aptitude test which will determined which of these five factions they will belong to. Once you join a faction you can never change. These rules sometimes separate families if one of the members scores differently on the test. If this happens you are not allowed to visit your family. The motto of the society is factions before blood.

The underlying theme of "Divergent" is individualism. The world showcased here is one based on conformity. The population must be labeled. Citizens must fall into a group. Those that do not conform are considered a danger. They are know as "divergent" - free thinkers who will not conform. They defy labels.

This way of thinking is with us now. In our society we need to label others. First we start of with the basics. Male or female. Old or young. Tall or short. But then we get a little more complex. Kind or cruel. Intelligent or not. Democrat or Republican. We are constantly ready to fit people into boxes. This helps us identify people. Once we label them we know what to expect from them. They live up to their reputation. This is especially true in our politically divided country we live in.

What ultimately hurts "Divergent" is it takes this serious theme and then fuses it with a love story. "Divergent" becomes another "Twilight" series for young girls to gawk at guys and watch a cheesy love story. Too bad. When a movie has ideas and wants to be about something but then has to push aside those ideas in order to become more "marketable". The romance is what made Veronica Roth's novel popular. The romance is what will get people into the seats. And the theatre I saw this movie at was nearly sold out with young teenage girls eagerly awaiting for the movie to start.

In "Divergent" we follow Tris (Shailene Wooley) and her family; Natalie her mother (Ashley Judd), Andrew her father (Tony Goldwyn) and Caleb her brother (Ansel Elgort). They are Abnegation. Tris and Caleb have now reached the age where they must take the aptitude test to find out what their destiny is. Will they remain Abnegation or are they meant for something else?

When Tris takes her test she discovers she is divergent. At first she does not understand what this means and the reaction she will face from the rest of society. All she knows is she must not reveal being divergent to anyone.

Tris joins the Dauntless and there develops a crush on one of her instructors, Four (Theo James) who senses Tris is not like the other recruits, one of whom includes Peter (Miles Teller, who co-starred in last year's "The Spectacular Now" (2013) also with Woodley).

Without revealing too much, secret government plots are discovered. It is up to Tris to correct these things and bring true harmony to this new world.

Some have compared this movie to "The Hunger Game" novels and movies. Both revolve around young woman put in extreme situations. Both movies also touch on social and political themes and don't fully follow through with them.

The movie was directed by Neil Burger, best known for "The Illusionist" (2006) and "Limitless" (2011). The movie feels like a big budget Hollywood production. You don't sense there was a director behind this. A personal vision is not presented. The movie is overwhelmed by the effects and budget.

The target audience will enjoy "Divergent". It is a welcome surprise that the movie has ideas and wants to make a commentary but one wishes the movie had dropped the love story. Shorten the running time (the movie is over two hours) and focus more on the social commentary. Then "Divergent" would have been something to recommend. As it is now, it is a light, mass audience tale of forbidden love.

Budapest Times: European Union Film Festival Article

The Budapest Times has published my article on the European Union Film Festival. Below is the link. 

http://budapesttimes.hu/2014/03/21/hungarian-films-looking-for-greater-showing-in-america/

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Film Review: Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

"Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs"  *** (out of ****)

I am sure I saw Walt Disney's "Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) growing up as a kid. I was definitely familiar with the story and the characters. I am sure, if I did see it, I probably liked it. But time and age have a way of changing things. I can't tell you how many random things I enjoyed as a child that I didn't like when I was older. Everything ranging from food, movies and clothes.

Watching "Snow White" again as an adult I look at the movie with a critical eye. With an adult's mindset. Having said that "Snow White" is not as great as its reputation would have you believe.

Now I know making a statement like that will get me into a lot of trouble. Many people consider this a classic. We often hear how Disney's early animated feature films; "Pinocchio" (1940), "Dumbo" (1941), "Bambi" (1942), "Cinderella" (1950) and "Lady and the Tramp" (1955) are masterpieces. Without question the studio created memorable characters in each of these movies. Characters which all these years later are still known today by children. People have a lot of fond memories of these movies. They have a sentimental value. They remind people of their children. I understand that affection. I have movies which I feel that way about as well. But, watch "Snow White" again and tell me what you think.

As "Snow White" begins words appear on the screen. There is an evil Queen (voiced by Lucille La Verne), who is Snow White's step-mother. The Queen as a mirror on the wall that tells her who is the fairest in the land. Being afraid of Snow White's beauty, The Queen keeps her in rages. As long as the mirror on the wall tells the Queen that she is the fairest in the land, Snow White is out of danger.

In the first scene of the movie the Queen stands before the magic mirror on the wall (voiced by Moroni Olsen) and asks the mirror who is the fairest in the land. The mirror replies Snow White. Immediately after the Queen wants to have Snow White killed.

This all leads to my first problem with "Snow White". There is no detail to the story. Explain the background story of the Queen. Explain how she came to be Snow White's step-mother. Acknowledge there was a king. Everything in "Snow White" just glosses over the details. It is all about the big picture. There is a Queen. She hates Snow White. She wants to kill Snow White. Snow White runs away and meets seven dwarfs. A Prince finds Snow White and they live happily ever after. That's it. That is the order of events in the movie. Nothing is explained. How does the Prince know where Snow White is? How have stories of her whereabouts traveled?

My other problem with "Snow White" is Snow White herself. Looking at the movie again I realize I don't like how she was drawn. She lacks facial expression and dimension. Her face almost blends into the background. Compare the way she was drawn with the dwarfs; Doc, Dopey, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Sneezy. The dwarfs are given more facial expressions. They are clearly defined. They have more personality. It is like looking at two different movies. Also, the Prince is poorly drawn. It is the same problem with him. He lacks definition. No facial expression.

You wouldn't normally expect to hear these type of remarks about Disney animation. But again I say watch the movie again. Tell me honestly the dwarfs weren't drawn better than Snow White or the Prince. Even the Queen is drawn better.

Of course looking at the movie today, compared with the CGI animation we get from Pixar and Dreamworks, the movie really looks dated. Today we would see the tree branches in the forest move with the wind. The background in this movie is static. But that is to be expected. The technology wasn't available then. I don't criticize the movie for that.

One cannot deny "Snow White"'s importance in the history of cinema. It was the first feature length animated film as well as Walt Disney's first feature film. It received an honorary Oscar and the musical score was nominated. It created memorable characters which Disney is still making money off of. There are memorable songs in the movie; Someday My Prince Will Come, Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho and my personal favorite, One Song, which the Prince sings early on to Snow White.

"Snow White" is fine for children. There is humor kids will enjoy. The antics of Grumpy and Dopey should entertain them. They may like the songs too. I'm sure the story won't bore them. The movie moves along briskly enough. But when they get older, they will notice what I am saying. For now, let them enjoy it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Film Review: When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism

"When Evening Falls On Bucharest"  ** (out of ****)

Language. It is a very important thing. The words we chose to express ourselves. Words have multiple meaning. Our understanding of words have a direct impact on how we communicate with others. Why do we chose the words we do?

These are some of the thoughts you may have as you watch the latest Romanian film from director Corneliu Porumboiu, which premiered in Chicago at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival.

We follow a film director, Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) and an actress, Alina (Diana Auramut) as they prepare for shooting on a film. They are also sleeping together. This is the first time Paul has slept with an actress in one of his movies but not the first time Alina has slept with a director she has worked with.

In the first scene of the film we see these two driving in Paul's car, immediately invoking the work of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, as they discuss the future of movies. Paul feels movies as we know it will change. Especially given the switch from film stock to digital. Alina tries to keep up with his logic.

Another scene deals with them in a Chinese restaurant as they discuss how the use of chop sticks has directly impacted Chinese cuisine. For example, Chinese food does not consist of T-bone steaks and roasted chicken. Why? Because how could they eat that with chop sticks. Again, Alina tries to keep up with his logic.

Scenes such as these comprise the majority of this 90 minute movie.

Director Porumboiu seems fascinated with deconstructing language and habits. Challenging our memories and perception. He makes us question things we take for granted. This was seen in his first two feature films, "12:08 East of Bucharest" (2007) and "Police, Adjective" (2009).

The problem I have with "When Evening Falls On Bucharest" (Cand se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism, 2014) is everything it does Porumboiu already did in "Police, Adjective" and much better. That movie had more humor and a more interesting plot, dealing with a cop reluctant to arrest some pot smoking kids, since the laws will change soon in Romania. "When Evening Falls" doesn't have enough of a plot to sustain it for 90 minutes. At best, you could have made a nice 20-30 minute short film. The scene in the Chinese restaurant perfectly illustrates what the movie is about. That scene within it itself is its own little movie.

The movie sometimes hints at something more. Is it a romance between these two characters? The movie suggest Alina may have a boyfriend and is cheating on him with Paul. We suspect Paul believes this to be true as well as Alina is always on the phone explaining where she is. But there is no confrontation about this.

When Porumboiu first came to my attention with "12:08 East of Bucharest" I instantly became a fan. I saw that movie at the Chicago International Film Festival and felt it was a great political satire. I enjoyed it so much I even placed it on my top ten list for 2007. Police, Adjective" didn't excitement as much but I thought it was a worthwhile effort. "When Evening Falls" didn't need to be made. And that's unfortunate. Porumboiu is a talented filmmaker. He has a unique perspective. It is too bad he used so much energy to create this movie (hence the meaning of the word metabolism). We know he is capable of more.

One telling sign about the film was a group of people sitting in front of me walked out of the movie after roughly 45 minutes. And honestly it didn't matter. After watching 45 minutes of this movie you get the basic idea. You don't need to stick around for the end because nothing different or new is being said.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

ChicagoTalks: European Union Film Festival

I have attached a link to an interview I conducted with the Hungarian National Film Fund about the European Union Film Festival in Chicago and two Hungarian films which will be showcased. Published by ChicagoTalks.org

http://www.chicagotalks.org/?p=43716

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Film Review: Veronica Mars

"Veronica Mars"  *** (out of ****)

I never caught up with the television series "Veronica Mars" created by Rob Thomas and starring Kristen Bell as a teenage private detective in a Southern California town called Neptune, where corruption is rampant. And that is a bit of a problem when you go to see the feature film adaptation of this underground cult show, which still has an incredibly devoted fan base.

This film version of "Veronica Mars", directed and co-written by Rob Thomas, along with Diane Ruggiero with Bell reprising her role, is almost exclusively for the fans. The movie, if you want to call it that, is more of an extension of the television show. The audience I attended a screening with knew all of the characters, their background story and caught many "in jokes". For them, I am sure seeing this on the big screen was a pleasure, especially since the television show was cancelled after three seasons in 2007. They have waited a long time for this. For them, it is like visiting old friends. For the rest of us, we are playing catch up.

At the very beginning of the movie, Bell does a voice over explaining briefly all of the events of season one of the show. Her father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) was a sheriff in this small town. During an investigation of Veronica's best friend's death, Keith upset the wrong people and was voted out of office. As a result he became a private investigator, along with his daughter. Together they would expose the town's corruption and upset even more people.

Living this type of life was difficult for Veronica and caused her not to have many friends or much of a dating life, though she did date her friend's boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring) after her friend's death. Though things between them didn't work out.

Veronica decided to move out of this town and start over again. She has been in a stable relationship with Piz (Chris Lowell), lives in New York, studied law and may be hired by a promising firm. What more could Veronica ask for? She is now an adult. A successful career may lay ahead of her. But, her old life comes knocking back when Logan's girlfriend is found dead in her home. Logan wants Veronica to come back and help him pick a lawyer, since he is the main suspect, though he claims he is innocent.

The rest of the movie deals with Veronica falling back into her old lifestyle. Picking up the pieces of where her life left off. Will things rekindle with Logan? Will she go back to working for her dad as an investigator? Is the town still corrupt? Tune in next week for the answers. "Veronica Mars" is either a pilot episode on film or a season finale. It depends on how familiar you are with the show.

Yet, I find myself interested in the small town and its characters. Veronica Mars is a tough, street smart lady. One character refers to her as Angela Lansbury, a reference to her role in the TV show "Murder She Wrote". While I'm not sure if the younger audience members catch the reference, it is an apt one. This is basically a younger "Murder She Wrote". Veronica is quick witted and fun to listen to and watch. She is always a step ahead of the law and everyone else, figuring out the missing pieces to the puzzle.

Though I have to go back to my original point, "Veronica Mars" doesn't feel like a movie. Director and co-writer Thomas didn't try to expand the base of the show. The devoted fan base will show up but what about the rest of us?

Normally, if you are going to make a feature film based off of a television show, you start at the beginning. "Veronica Mars" should have been season one of the television show. Everything that was mentioned in the opening voice over, should have been the basis of the film. Or at the very lease, incorporate it into the story and then pick up where the show left off. From an outsider's perspective, this would have made more sense.

But the movie is fun to watch. It is like watching a good episode of the show. For fans that will be good enough. If anything I'll admit I am curious now to go back to watch re-runs of the show. No doubt the intention of the movie.

What is also interesting about the movie is the way it came to be. Thomas and Bell started a fundraising campaign called Kickstarter where fans could donate money. And fans didn't disappoint. More than two million dollars was received.

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

"The Grand Budapest Hotel"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014) is the kind of movie which could have been made in the 1930s, the time the movie is suppose to take place, and it would have been directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who also made Eastern European flavored comedies in made up cities. It would have starred Maurice Chevalier and had a couple of songs. Or Preston Sturges could have written it and filled it with slapstick comedy and peppered it with zingers and one-liners.

That is partly what makes me admire "The Grand Budapest Hotel". It is a tip of the hat to the great comedies before it. It has a playful style to it but after a while it almost becomes too much of a good thing. It is too silly and the actors seem to know it, acknowledging it in with every movement, breaking one of the golden rules of comedy - always play it straight. Don't let the audience know you are in on the laugh.

It is that eccentric behavior and quirky nature which have become staples in Wes Anderson's movies and it is because of those qualities I am usually not among his ardent fans. Technically Anderson puts on a good show. There is nice cinematography in the movie, some good performances scattered throughout the movie, nice production and costume designs but Anderson's movies lack heart. His sense of humor is an acquired taste at best. My favorite of his movies is the animated "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009).

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" seems on track to become one of Mr. Anderson's most popular films. There has been a strong marketing campaign in effect and it has received some positive reviews. The screening I attended was nearly sold out. It could be Anderson's most mainstream movie to date.

But popularity doesn't equal quality. Anderson's previous film, "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012) hit a soft spot with audiences and was even nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar but I didn't like that movie either. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may be destine for the same future with audiences too.

The movie primarily takes place in 1932 in a made up Eastern European country called Zubrowka. We follow a concierge of the "famous" Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He has an impeccable reputation. All of the elite guest of the hotel love him. He is a perfectionist. He attends to the guest every want. And he is known to sleep with some of the older female guest. There is one in particular, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who at 84 has fallen in love with Gustave. She has suddenly turned up dead and Gustave is the main suspect. But he is a man falsely accused.

This is not a Hitchcockian, man on the run thriller though. Helping Gustave clear his name is the hotel's bellboy, Zero (Tony Revolori) but before Zero can do that, dead bodies start to turn up. Bodies of the very people who could help Gustave. The man doing it is Jopling (Willem Dafoe) who is acting on the order of Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the son of Madame D. Dmitri is upset because his mother left Gustave a priceless painting, which Gustave has stolen.

The biggest problem I have with the movie is the characters are not real. They are caricatures. They are too broad. The movie is laughing at itself. Anderson seems to think it is funny if his characters have mustaches and wear funny looking clothing. It makes the characters too self aware. You almost suspect the actors themselves think this is all hilarious and want to laugh on-screen. Before many of the actors say a word in the movie the audience starts laughing just by looking at them. This happened repeatedly at the screening.

Still, there are elements to enjoy. Ralph Fiennes gives a good performance. He shows more restraint then some of his co-stars. Fiennes can rarely do wrong. F. Murray Abraham serves as the movie's narrator and does a fine job.The make-up used on Tilda Swinton is impressive making her look like an 84 year old woman. And the cinematography is pleasant to look at.

Usually a comedy that makes fun of itself and doesn't hold back is fun to watch. I enjoy comedies like "Duck Soup" (1933) and "Diplomaniacs" (1933) absurd political satires that wink at the audience. The difference between those movies and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is I find those movies funny. I relate to the humor. Wes Anderson doesn't strike me as funny. I don't always get his humor.

There's a audience for "The Grand Budapest Hotel". Those that have enjoyed all of his previous films. For those like me, who don't get Wes Anderson's appeal, there are things we can enjoy and the movie is better than some of his other efforts, still, it is not a complete success if you aren't in step with his style.

Also, in typical Wes Anderson fashion, for a movie with Budapest in the title, the movie doesn't take place there and wasn't even filmed there. It was shot in Germany instead. I guess that's another Wes Anderson "joke".

Friday, March 14, 2014

Xpatloop: European Union Film Festival

Xpatloop.com - a website dealing with Hungarian news, published an interview I conducted with the Hungarian National Film Fund about Hungarian films being shown at the European Union Film Festival in Chicago. I have attached a link.

http://www.xpatloop.com/news/76241

Film Review: Aglaya

"Aglaya"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's not "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952), the Cecil B. DeMille Oscar winning film about life under the big top, but the Hungarian film "Aglaya" (Aglaja, 2014) follows a dysfunctional family of circus performers and the hardships they endure.

The movie premiered in Chicago at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival, which is running throughout March.

"Aglaya" has been a hit on the festival circuit winning various awards at film festivals though it has yet to find distribution in America. In the end I don't think it will. Not because of the quality of the film but simply because it is Hungarian and there is limited interest in America for Hungarian cinema, which is unfortunate. If it's not a French or Italian movie, Americans generally have little to no interest.

The film is based on a novel written by Aglaja Veteranyi, based on her own life, with a screenplay by Kriztina Deak, who also directed the movie, her first since "Who the Hell's Bonnie and Clyde?" (A miskolci boniesklajd, 2004).

Playing Aglaja is Babett Javor (as a child) and Piroska Moga (as a teenager). This is really Aglaja's story. It is a piece of teen angst. A story about fitting in. About living in the shadows of your parents and trying to find your own place, your own identity. About surviving.

Aglaja's father, Tandarica (Zsolt Bogdan) is a famous circus clown. Her mother, Sabine (Eszter Onodi), becomes famous as "the lady with steel hair". She flies in the sky with a harness attached to her hair, making her known all over the world. And then there is her sister, Ana (Janka Dobi) who is handicap, due to a leg injury. Unfortunately the movie loses interest in this character and she disappears. It would have been interesting to see how both sisters dealt with the same themes.

The circus lifestyle is not appropriate for a family, especially for children. Aglaja sees her parents fight constantly, notices when they are unfaithful and fears for her mother's death, as she hangs in the air. These scenes are actually quite suspenseful. I was on the edge of my seat because you just never know if she will fall to her death. And we do see other performers injure themselves during their acts. It all seems to be just a matter of time until something will happen to Sabine.

The family is Hungarian but lives in Romania, in the town of Cluj-Napoca, which is not uncommon. They are a success in the Romanian circus but desperately want to escape the country. The movie takes place during the communist era and the family wants to head west. And so they do, to Germany where they work in a circus under a Hungarian circus director (Andras Balint, who is married to the film's director, is an actor very well known in Hungary, appearing in several classics). But the child authorities catch up with the family when they learn both Aglaja and Ana are not ging to school. So the family is split up and the children attend a boarding school.

From this point on the movie started to lose me. Years go by, the sister's are split up, we learn the parents divorce and the remainder of the film will now focus on Aglaja as a teenager trying to deal with her place in the world. The problem is we don't really feel for her. We don't experience the same emotional toll she goes through. The movie has a mono-tone delivery. It doesn't seem to shift moods. We don't really get a sense of this family. The Ana character is a throw away, no development. The father seems to be an interesting character, being a famous clown, and as Sabine describes him, is a man whose life comprised of him falling on his behind. You could do something interesting with that character if he felt the same way. But these are just some examples of what the movie glides over. The movie just doesn't make Aglaja a compelling character. Everyone around her has a better story. They are the performers. They are the ones following dreams. Aglaja doesn't have dreams yet. That is the point of the movie but that doesn't mean it is interesting to watch.

Overall the performances in the movie are fine. I enjoyed Eszter Onodi as the mother. She thrives on fame. She will do whatever it takes. And as a older women her desire for attention is not just to be a great performer but to feel attractive, to known that men want her. Piroska Moga does have a "lost" quality to her, which is what the role needed. Zsolt Bogdan seems like a man beaten up by life. Trying to stay a step ahead of the game. But, how much longer can he go on living being a clown? In fact, how much longer can any of these characters go on being performers?

The movie ends on a hopeful note however. When at the boarding school Aglaja is caught putting on lipstick. For this she is scolded and told Jesus does love those that stand out in a crowd. At the end of the movie Aglaja walks around the city, the camera pulls away, going to an over head shot, capturing the entire area and all the people walking. Soon we lose Aglaja. She no longer stands out in the crowd. She is just one of those ordinary people walking. That is what Aglaja wants. It seems she found it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Film Review: Coraline

"Coraline"  *** (out of ****)

"Be careful what you wish for" was the tagline for the stop-motion animated film "Coraline" (2009). Another tagline could have been don't think the grass is greener on the other side. It is a cautionary tale warning children to appreciate what you have and remember, your parents aren't that bad.

It is actually not a common theme for an animated movie which usually tells kids to dream, seek adventure. Don't settle. Wasn't that the theme of "The Little Mermaid" (1989) and "Beauty and the Beast" (1991)? Ariel and Belle didn't settle. But the heroine of "Coraline", a young, disgruntled, sometimes neglected girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) learns the importance of "living in the real world".

Coraline and her parents; Mel (voiced by Terri Hatcher) and Charles (voiced by John Hodgman) have moved into a new home. A home we are told by their neighbor, a young boy Coraline's age, Wybie (voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.) that has a mysterious past. Wybie's grandmother and great aunt lived in the home but one day his great aunt went missing. His grandmother mother has wondered ever since what happened to her.

While doing some exploring around her new home Coraline notices a miniature hidden door which has been locked and sealed up. What could be on the other end? And why is the door so small? Coraline finds the key to door and soon discovers the secret of the door.

Just like Alice in "Alice in Wonderland" Coraline follows a creature, in the movie's case it is a jumping mouse, to the door which leads her to another world, a world the exact opposite of her own. A world where her parents (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman) pay attention to her, cook her favorite meals and simply seem more fun, except for one thing. They don't have eyes. They have buttons sewn in instead. Coraline is going to have to chose which world she wants to live in.

The movie was directed by Henry Selick who previously gave us "James and the Giant Peach" (1996) and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993). "Coraline" resembles "Nightmare" in that the movie has an unsettling visual style. The movie is down right creepy and suspenseful. This is not a happy, bright movie, even though it is animated. The movie is a nightmare, a disturbing twist on a child's imagination.

What Coraline learns is her "Other Mother" as she is credited, has lured other children into this world. The Other Mother preys on unhappy children. Children that feel neglected and keeps them in this place. But in order to do so, she must remove their eyes and replace them with buttons. This Other Mother doesn't want Coraline to leave. At first because she says she loves Coraline and later because Coraline finds out the truth.

"Coraline" is not for small children. I'd say at least 10 and up. Younger children may be put off by the movie and find certain parts scary. Others may just not like it because Coraline is not your typical character. She is not Alice, a sweet young girl who also doesn't like the real world and enjoys games. Coraline has a bit of an attitude. She talks back. She is at the awkward stage in her life where she is still a child but wants to be treated like an adult by her parents, yet still depends on them. She is not a Disney princess.

Still I'm recommending the movie. It is suspenseful. It is off-beat. The animation is interesting to look it. The imagination of the animators and director Selick is truly unique. And the voice over work is good. I also like its more realistic message.

The movie was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in the best animated feature film category. It lost both times to the Disney/Pixar film "Up" (2009), a movie with a much sweeter message which told us to live life as if it were an adventure and not to give up on our dreams.

Monday, March 10, 2014

ChicagoTalks: Hayao Miyazaki Article

I have provided a link to my article on the work of Hayao Miyazaki which was published by ChicagoTalks.
http://www.chicagotalks.org/?p=43595

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Film Review: Adult World

"Adult World"  *** (out of ****)

"Adult World" (2014) is a new quirky comedy directed by Scott Coffey starring Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts' niece), John Cusack and Cloris Leachman.

"Adult World" wants to be a coming of age story where young college age students learn the difficulties of living in "the real world".

Emma Roberts stars as Amy, a recent college grad with a major in poetry. Amy wants to become a famous poet and have her work published. According to her, what makes her a poet is that she feels. She has ideas. Amy is one of those perfect students, straight "As", always raising her hand, near perfect SAT scores. She thought after college life would be easy for her. Everything would fall into place. I mean c'mon, she got straight "As" in school. That should impress magazine publishers right?

One day Amy's parents drop a bomb on her. They can't afford her. Her education has put her $90,000 in debt. She lives at home, spends all of her time writing, submitting her work to magazines and entering contest, has no job and her parents simply can't support her anymore.

With this heartbreaking news Amy is determine to find a job. Being a poetry major makes it difficult. It is not a marketable skill that CEOs are looking for. Eventually Amy finds herself working in an adult video shop owned by Mary Anne (Cloris Leachman) and the one employee, Alex (Evan Peters), who is around Amy's age.

Amy finds working in the store degrading. She is an artist after all. Artist don't work in adult sex shop. Plus Amy has lead a sheltered life. She is a virgin and has not been exposed to the wild city life. Everything in the store is new to her. The variety of people who shop there surprises her. It will truly be a new experience for her. And that's how the movie gets its title. The shop is called Adult World. And it does deal with porn but Adult World also has a multiple meaning. Amy leaves childhood behind. She enters the adult world. She gets a job, moves out of her parents place. Learns how to take the bus. Meets people of different walks of life.

But Amy hasn't given up on her dream of being a poet. As luck would have it, Amy meets her favorite poet, Rat Billings (John Cusack) at a book signing. Initially Rat is scared off by Amy. She is a very enthusiastic young woman, who is not afraid to put herself out there. She is a go-getter.  Amy wants Rat to become her mentor. To read her writing. Tell her if she is any good. Possibly introduce her to someone who can get her published.

Rat is not interested. He is reclusive. He takes himself very serious and values his privacy. Amy is just a nuisance to him. But Amy won't take no for an answer. She even talks Rat into the idea of working as his maid, hoping all the while Rat will read her poems and offer advice.

Emma Roberts has some screen presence to her. She is bubbly and likable. She may not have the famous smile like her aunt but at her young age she has her own charms. As she gets older I wouldn't be surprised to find her in a lot of Hollywood romantic comedies unless she takes the indie route, in which case her career won't amount to much. She actually doesn't seem to fit in with that crowd. I definitely see her more as a mainstream actress in the future.

John Cusack goes the grumpy old man route in this movie but he isn't old enough for this part. He just comes across as a rat. A pompous has been. But it is a somewhat nice role for Cusack, who keeps the character from becoming too unlikable.

Any problem I have with the movie has to do with the script written by Andy Cochran. All I ask of a movie is that it be vaguely believable. What happens in "Adult World" doesn't struck me as believable. I question if Amy has learned anything. I wish the relationship between Rat and Amy were different. Without spoiling too much, I wish his character would have been more supportive or go about his constructive criticism in a more insightful way. And the romance which blossoms between Alex and Amy should have been handled in a way which slowly revealed their feelings for each other.

There is also a character here named Rubia (Armando Riesco) a male cross dresser who visits the shop frequently. Amy also looks to him/her for advice. I can't think of a reason why this character had to be a cross dresser other than for the shock value to the Amy character. Rubia however is the opposite of Rat. Rubia is supportive and encourages Amy to follow her dreams. In that sense the character was needed. The character wearing a dress was not.

"Adult World" has that indie, Sundance feel to it. The character are the types you would meet at a liberal arts school. The guys wear hoodies and jeans and everyone gets high and disses the mainstream. The "too cool for school" attitude. Still, despite that I somewhat enjoyed it, even with its flaws.

I like Emma Roberts, the message is sweet and sometimes the relationship between Rat and Amy is fun to watch. Those would be the only reasons to watch this movie.

Film Review: Antz

"Antz"  *** (out of ****)

"Antz" (1998) was Dreamworks Studio's first computer generated animated feature film, putting it in direct competition with Pixar Studios, which at this time had released "Toy Story" (1995) and was about to release its second feature film, also revolving around ants, "A Bug's Life" (1998).

"Antz" beat "A Bug's Life" to the punch and was released first, in an attempt to steal the thunder from Pixar. The plan didn't exactly work, while "Antz" did well at the box-office and did find critical acclaim, former Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel placed "Antz" on his "top ten" list in 1998 (his final list before passing away), the movie however didn't beat "A Bug's Life" at the box-office. Although, with so many years passing, it is debatable which movie is better. Both have stood the test of time and are still with us. Both, kind of, sort of have different themes they are working with. "Antz" is a bit more "worldly". It takes more jabs at society and comments on every day working life, not just for ants but humans too.

In "Antz" we follow Z (voiced by Woody Allen). Z is the middle child of five billion. Thus he has identity problems. He also doesn't like the structure of the ant colony. You see, ants are divided into "workers" or "soldiers". This is done at birth. A group of ants determine which group to categorize all ants. The decision will shape the rest of their lives. Workers merely work. They dig and dig. They are told only when they band together are they worth something. The ant colony depends on strength in numbers. To the worker the soldiers have all the fun. The have the freedom not to work. Plus they get all the prestige of going into battle and being considered heroes.

Z doesn't want to live the life of a worker. He doesn't feel cut out for the job. He dislikes the idea that his entire life has been planned out for him. Once you are a worker, you will remain a worker. Z wants to be an individual in a world where this is not accepted. Every ant needs to understand his or her place. The ant colony relies on discipline.

And this becomes a major theme of the movie. Individualism. Learn to think for yourself. Don't do what others tell you. In the case of "Antz" it is what General Mandible (voiced by Gene Hackman) says. He wants to take over the ant colony from the Queen (voiced by Anne Bancroft) and create a new colony. A colony which will eliminate all the workers and only be comprised of soldiers. A master race. A colony of strong ants. In order to complete his plan he wants to marry the Queen's daughter, Princess Bala (voiced by Sharon Stone).

This concept of a master race. Of superior beings, only the strong survive, may make some think of Fascism and the Nazis, another group that thought of themselves as a "master race". And maybe now you can see why I say "Antz" is a "worldly" animated movie. It addresses bigger issues than if Minnie will kiss Mickey Mouse. It discusses people learning not to trust the government, which hides its self-interest around phony concepts of 'the greater good". Working on behalf of the interest of its people. Just like the General says of the ant colony, how many times have we heard when Americans stand together we are strong?

At one point the workers begin to realize they control productivity and if they strike nothing will get done. It is actually the workers that have all the power.

But, as to not make this movie too threatening to the establishment, of course it is disguised as a silly animated film. The lead characters are ants and it does become a love story. Z falls in love with Princess Bala and she leaves the palace to mingle with the workers, who in her mind, lead a fun life. The Princess also feels her life has been determined for her and her mother has arranged her married to General Mandible without her consent. They do not love each other. But as a Princess she too must follow orders.

When the Princess goes to the workers hangout after work, a local bar where drunken ants talk of a better world called "insectopia" where food is all over and no one is around to give orders (basically it is a picnic), Princess Bala notices Z all by himself and asks him to dance. For Z it is love at first sight but this can be their only meeting since a Princess cannot socialize with a worker not to mention she is engaged.

Z doesn't not accept this and is determined to find away to see her again. His master plan is to trade places with a soldier, his friend Weaver (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

I like some of the ideas presented in the script by Chris and Paul Weitz (who worked on American Pie (1999) together) and Todd Alcott. It has ambition. It wants to make a social point. But it loses its nerve at the end offering a contrasting message going from individualism to the importance of order and working together. I found the same problem with another Dreamworks animated film, "Bee Movie" (2007) by Jerry Seinfeld. That movie also promoted individualism but then talked about how each person has their place in the world. It is two competing messages. You can't argue both sides at once.

What I like best about "Antz" is Woody Allen. I would like to think Allen was able to write some of his own lines because the humor is very distinctly Allen's own. His wise-cracks and observation about the ant colony and his remarks which go beyond ant life and reflect the real world. At one point, when war is declared against termites, who are bigger and stronger than the ants, Z quips, why not make campaign contributions and try to influence them instead. That remark is a comment on our own political process and a classic Allen jab. Allen's dialogue makes the movie interesting for adults. The children will be laughing at one thing while the adults will be laughing at something else. In the end everyone will find something to enjoy.

"Antz" directed by Eric Darnell, who would go on to direct "Madagascar" (2005) and Tim Johnson, who would work on "Over the Hedge" (2006), is not really a classic in my opinion but it is entertaining and shows animation can comment on the real world and make social commentaries using the guise of animation to make it less threatening and have a greater mass appeal.

I'd recommend "Antz" for Woody Allen's voice over work and some of the sharp observations even though I feel it lessens its sting (sorry wrong insect) at the end.

The Work of Hayao Miyazaki



On September 1, 2013 the acclaimed Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, announced he is retiring from film-making and his latest film, "The Wind Rises" (2013) will be his last film.

To those who are unaware of the name Hayao Miyazaki, he is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest animators in the world and certainly in Japan. Thanks to the Walt Disney Company, which owns American distribution rights to his films, Hayao Miyazaki's work has also found an audience in this country.

With Miyazaki's retirement, film fans, not just those interetested in animation, should mourn his decision.

Hayao Miyazaki was born in Bunkyo, Tokyo on January 5, 1941. He began his career in 1963 when he joined Toei Animation, which was originally known as Japan Animated Films when founded in 1948.

During this time Miyazaki was an "in-between artist" - this is the process of drawing between key frames which help to create an illusion of motion. At Toei Animation Miyazaki worked on the anime feature films "Watchdog Bow Wow" and Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon".

After leaving Toei in 1971 Miyazaki would direct his feature film debut "Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro" (1979), which was based on a manga series, which is basically a Japanese comic book.

The movie would not resemble later Miyazaki films which focus on man's relationship with nature and technology. His films also deal with aviation (Miyazaki's father made rudders for A6M Zero fighter planes during WW2), they are anti-war (Miyazaki is a known pacifist) and usually center around young, strong willed female characters. The movies which best showcase these themes are "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984), a science-fiction movie based on Miyazaki's own manga series of the same name and his often regarded as his masterpiece, as well as "Castle in the Sky" (1986) a movie about two orphans running away from pirates. The movie takes place around the turn of the century and deals with the dangers of the industrial age.

After the success of "Nausicaa" Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli along with Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki and Yasuyoshi Tokuma in 1985. It is where Miyazaki has made all of his films since.

Those films include "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988), "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) and "Porco Rosso" (1992). But it wasn't until Miramax Films bought the rights to "Princess Mononoke" and released it in America in 1999 that audiences here became aware of Miyazaki's work. American critics were greatly impressed. Former Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert would champion the film and even place it on his "top ten" list that year.

Miyazaki though reached the height of his popularity in this country with the release of "Spirited Away" in 2002. It is the story of a young girl who gets lost from her parents in an abandon amusement park and finds herself in a strange new world. The movie would eventually win the Academy Award for best animated feature film, making it, to this date, the only anime film to ever win.

What I love best about Miyazaki's work is the mature way he deals with his stories and his characters. In this country we tend to think of animation has being for children. When you say animation a majority of people may think Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons, which are marketed for children. But Miyazaki's films are different. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if adults enjoy his work more than children. Miyazaki takes on big issues; the environment, war, the dangers of technology. These are "serious" complex stories. Sometimes the "bad guys" aren't so clearly defined. Children may not fully understand the implications of his stories.

Animation is capable of telling serious stories. It does not have to be limited to children's entertainment. This thinking represents the difference in culture between America and Japan.

If Miyazaki really does retire, he has made this claim before back in 1997 and 2008, after the release of his movie "Ponyo", it will be a major lost in the world of cinema. But audiences still have one more opportunity to see the work of Miyazaki on the big screen. His "final film", "The Wind Rises" has been released in this country and is currently in theatres. It was nominated for an Academy Award in the best animated feature film category but lost to the Disney film "Frozen" (2013).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Film Review: The Little Mermaid

"The Little Mermaid"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Watching "The Little Mermaid" (1989) we remember the joy and artistry of hand drawn animation, especially in our world of CGI animated films from the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks.

"The Little Mermaid" rejuvenated the Disney animated feature film, after falling on hard times during the late 70s and into the 80s with features such as "The Black Cauldron" (1985) and "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986). Those movies may have their defenders (I actually like "The Great Mouse Detective") but neither was a box-office success. Disney was not able to capitalize on these films and /or turn these characters into the same money making machine they have with "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "Aladdin" (1992).

"The Little Mermaid" is often credited as the beginning of what is known as the "Disney Renaissance" a period of time between 1989-1999 when Disney was releasing successful animated films which garnered critical and commercial acclaim.

There is no way to deny "The Little Mermaid" is a visual knockout. It is so vivid and colorful. There was so much attention given to creating the kingdom under the sea. Look at all the fishes, the bubbles, the weeds, the king's throne. All of it is something to behold. "The Little Mermaid" compares with the very best hand drawn Disney animated films and I would even put it up against anything Pixar or Dreamworks has given us in the last 15 years or so. This movie is that good.

I first saw "The Little Mermaid" when I was a kid in theatres. I had not watched it since. When I watched it again, I had forgotten a lot of it. I didn't remember all of the plot twist and turns. I am not ashamed to say I was caught in the story. I rooted for our hero, a mermaid named Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson). I wanted to know how this movie would end. Where would this story take us? You kind of expect a happy ending, did I mention this is a Disney movie? Happy endings are expected. Unless you are old yeller. But that's another story.

In "The Little Mermaid" we follow Ariel. She wants to become human. At first because she finds life on land to be fascinating. She collects any human artifact she can find. Objects which have made it to the bottom of the ocean such as forks, necklaces and pipes. Ariel looks at these object with great wonderment. What do humans do with these things? Luckily, she knows a "wise" seagull, Scuttle (voiced by Buddy Hackett) who is very familiar with the ways of humans and tells Ariel what are the objects are which she finds. Naturally Scuttle has no clue what he is talking about and seems to make up things as he goes. For example when Ariel shows him a fork Scuttle tells her humans use it to comb their hair.

Soon though Ariel finds another reason for wanting to become human. She sees Eric (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes) who just so happens to be a prince. Disney heroines always seem to find a prince. But this is forbidden. Merfolk are not to mix with humans, who are seen as barbarians, always catching fish and killing them. Ariel's father King Triton (Kenneth Mars) will not allow his daughter to interact with humans. His daughter must learn her place in the world, among her own kind.

In order to keep an eye on Ariel's doings, Triton appoints Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), a faithful crab servant, to follow Ariel and her friend, Flounder (Jason Marin) a fish, and prevent them from going near the humans.

But Ariel cannot give into her desire to be human and meets the witch of the sea, Ursula (Pat Carroll) an octopus. Ursula makes a bargain with Ariel. She will turn Ariel into a human, for three days. If, Eric does not fall in love with her and kiss her, Ariel will belong to Ursula. If that is not enough, in order to grant Ariel her wish, Ariel must trade Ursula her voice, rendering Ariel speechless. Against Sebastian and Flounder's protest, Ariel agrees.

And there who have the basic set-up to this Hans Christian Andersen adaptation directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, both of whom would go on to direct "Aladdin", featuring a musical score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.

The songs in the movie are also stars. The score is full of beautiful, catchy songs. There is a beautiful ballad, "Part of Your World", which Ariel sings expressing her desire to join the humans. Next there is the Oscar nominated "Kiss the Girl", as Sebastian and his underwater friends, try to create a romantic mood to inspire Eric to well, kiss the girl, Ariel. Ursula has a show stopping number, "Poor Unfortunate Souls", maybe my favorite in the movie. Disney usually had one very good musical number for their villain character. I'm also thinking of the song "Be Prepared" in "The Lion King" (1994) sung by the Scar character. And finally there is the Oscar winning song "Under the Sea", as Sebastian explains to Ariel how much better life is in the ocean as compared to life with humans.

As with most animated movies there is a theme lurking arond here - follow your heart. Don't "accept your place in the world". Ariel wants adventure. She doesn't want to live her whole life in the ocean and live under her father's rule. Which leads to another theme - parents must let their children grow up and make their own decisions. The parents won't like that one but the kids sure will. In fact the song "Under the Sea" is a direct warning against this, advising Ariel not to think the grass is always greener on the other side. Just from a practical experience, my own life lessons have taught me this is true.

You can compare "The Little Mermaid" to Disney's next film "Beauty and the Beast". Both stories deal with characters that want to become human. You have the Beast, who was human at one time but had a curse put on him and of course Ariel is a mermaid. In order for both characters to become human they must experience true love's kiss. Both are put under a time constraint. Ariel has three days, the Beast has until his 21 birthday. Both Ariel and Belle don't like their place in the world. Belle doesn't fit in the small French town she lives in and seeks adventure in all the books she reads while Ariel doesn't fit in the world under the sea and seeks adventure by learning about humans.

Watching "Beauty and the Beast" I said I wasn't drawn into the romance between Belle and the Beast. I said I expected more heart. I wasn't actively rooting for them, although everything else about the movie is wonderful. But "The Little Mermaid" is different. I was rooting for her. I did care if she becomes human.

However if there is one thing about "The Little Mermaid" I don't like it is the running time. It is roughly 80 minutes. I felt the story was rushed a bit, particularly near the end. Events aren't given enough time to play out. Ursula's plans could have used more time. Create more conflict, more friction between herself and Ariel as they both fight for Eric. All it needed was about ten more minutes. I think children would have been able to endure that.

Despite that "The Little Mermaid" is a great Disney animated film. One of my all-time favorites.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Film Review: Beauty & the Beast

"Beauty & the Beast"  *** (out of ****)

I was eight years old when Disney's "Beauty & the Beast" (1991) was released. I don't think I saw it in theatres. My parents didn't usually take me to see animated movies, as I really didn't like them. I preferred live action, but, I do remember the buzz and excitement surrounding this movie at the time.

"Beauty & the Beast" marked a return to form for Disney. The studio had just come off the successful "The
Little Mermaid" (1989), which I did see in a movie theatre, and hit audiences with a one-two punch. You will find many defenders of this movie. Even those who would say it is better than "The Little Mermaid" and compare it to Disney classics such as "Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), the first full length animated movie.

Just about everything in this movie is wonderful. I like all of the characters; Belle (voiced by Paige O' Hara) a bookworm who lives in a small provincial French town. She feels like an outsider. She wants adventure in her life, hence her love of books. She reads about going to far off places and love stories with princes.

There is also Gaston (Richard White) the town hunk I suppose, who finds Belle attractive but can't stop admiring his own looks every time he passes a mirror. At one time, in a song, he sings Belle is almost as beautiful as he is. Then there is his sidekick, Lefou (French for "fool" voices by Jesse Corti), who is amusing as well, and sings an ode to Gaston, citing everything that makes Gaston great, such as his strength and ability to spit far.

Belle's father, Maurice (Rex Everhart) is an inventor, who dreams of becoming famous, if only one of his machines would work and not blow up their home.

The song are great. From Belle's opening number, explaining her desire for more out of life and the town's feeling that she is odd, to the Gaston number, to perhaps the most famous song in the movie, "Be Our Guest". The music is an absolute delight and have lasted the test of time with their catchy melodies.

The only thing that prevents me from giving a higher rating is I wasn't emotionally drawn in to this story. Everyone should be familiar with the plot, it revolves around a spoiled prince who was turned into a beast after an ugly beggar offered him a rose if she could seek shelter. The rose she handed him was magical, and serves as a hour glass. Within ten years the petals on the rose will wilt, and when the final petal falls, he shall remain a beast and his castle shall never be lifted from this curse. The only way to break it is if he learns to love and his love is returned.

Maurice, one day traveling into town, gets lost on a dark and stormy night and seeks shelter in the beast's castle, where he finds a talking clock, Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), a talking candlestick, Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) and a talking tea pot, Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury). But when the Beast (Robby Benson) finds Maurice, he throws him in a prison in the castle's tower. When Belle discovers this, she offers to take her father's place.

The question is can Belle be the woman the Beast has been waiting for? Can she see beyond his looks and learn to love him? Can the Beast love Belle?

The theme here is finding beauty within and never walk into a castle with a talking candlestick. But as is usual in our culture it also re-enforces the stereotype that all women care about is a man's heart. Women are able to see the beauty within whereas a man can only notice beauty on the outside. There is Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and not to mention countless TV shows where fat ugly men marry beautiful, skinny women (King of Queens).

Also the theme of following your heart, not settling for "your place in life". Belle can marry Gaston and lead a boring life with him and have children but she doesn't want that.

But, I wasn't drawn into the romance between the Beast and Belle. My sympathy never went to the Beast. I didn't truly feel sorry for him. I wasn't actively rooting for their romance. My heartstrings weren't being pulled.

Animation can touch me. I am able to become emotionally involved. There is a scene in "Dumbo" when Dumbo visits his mother, who is locked away because she is accused of being a violent animal. Dumbo will never see her again. And even in this scene, doesn't really get to see her. Only her trunk as it slides between the prison bars, and she holds Dumbo, with her trunk as a beautiful song plays in the background. I can't watch that movie ever again because I don't know if I see that scene again if I'll be able to stop myself from crying. There is nothing in "Beauty & the Beast" that is as touching. As moving. It needed that.

Still, the animation is beautiful. There is a scene, when we first meet Belle, as she walks out of her house, the colors on the scene change becoming very vivid. Watching this movie in the age of CGI I have to admit was a bit odd for me. I am so use to seeing Pixar and Dreamworks animation, the hand drawn style seemed odd to me. It took my eyes a while to adjust. But there is true artistry in it.

"Beauty & the Beast" was the first animated movie to be nominated for a best picture Oscar but lost that year to "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). Disney continued their commercial success track record with "Aladdin" (1992) and "The Lion King" (1994) after this.

There is a lot to enjoy watching "Beauty & the Beast". Children will have a good time and so will some adults. The animation is beautiful, the songs a pleasure, the characters fun, I just wanted more heart.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Film Review: Eat Pray Love

"Eat Pray Love"  ** (out of ****)

"Eat Pray Love" (2010) was based on a best selling novel written by Elizabeth Gilbert that apparently had a large female readership.

Back in 2010 on my annual top ten list I stated the films of the year were about "connecting". About people trying to fit in society, find themselves, connect to other people. "Eat Pray Love" fits in perfectly with those themes yet there is a problem I had with this movie.

Julia Roberts plays Liz Gilbert (the same name as the book's author). She and her husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup) are getting a divorce. This takes a great emotional toll on Liz, even though she is the one that wants the divorce. She says she is now unable to feel. She has no place in the world. Since she was 15, she tells a friend, she has either been in a relationship or has been breaking up with someone. She never had time to think of herself and "find her balance". So, naturally, she does what any of us would do. She takes a year long trip to Italy, India and Bali so she can "find herself".

What I dislike about "Eat Pray Love" is it is dishonest. The movie can basically be summed up as saying, rich bored white women needs to find a man. In all three countries where Liz travels that is what the locals tell her. Every women in Bali tells her "she needs to find a man". Did Liz really need to travel to these places to find a man? A message behind the movie is all we need in life (men or women) is another person to make us happy. The solution to a woman's problem is "she needs a man". This does open a larger discussion about people and society. Is this how we feel? Are we only happy when we are with someone? Does being in a relationship make us feel complete? I'm sure there would be a lot of evidence showing that is what the mass media tells us. Look no further than Valentine's Day as an example.

But a movie such as "Eat Pray Love" isn't playing fair. It wants to pretend it is about more than a woman needing to find a man. It hides behind a theme of self-empowerment. It talks about spiritual guidance. Why couldn't it just be a cute, old-fashion romantic comedy about a woman going through a divorce and she meets a man who makes her believe in love again? Why hide this story behind all these locations and phony concepts about enlightenment?

Watching a movie like "Eat Pray Love" should make the viewer come away with meaning from their life. It should change our perception about our lives and the world around us. But I can't tell you what Liz learns on this journey. I did not go along with her on this adventure.

The characters in this movie aren't real people. There are symbols of different "walks of life" that meet Liz. And, wouldn't you know it they are mostly men. There is David (James Franco) a young actor Liz hooks up with immediately after her divorce, there is Richard (Richard Jenkins) who also travels to Bali to "find himself". There is Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto) a village healer and Felipe (Javier Bardem) a good looking Brazilian who likes Liz. None of these people feel fleshed out. Who are they? There only purpose seems to be to interact with Liz.

I will grant you, the movie is pretty to look at. It was directed by Ryan Murphy, who wrote for the TV show "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck". He also wrote and directed "Running with Scissors" (2006) another disappointing movie.

Female readers might say, because I am a man I am unable to enjoy a "chick flick". I am the wrong audience. That is complete non-sense. I enjoyed "Love Actually" (2003), I enjoyed Julia Roberts previous romantic comedies; 'My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997), "Runaway Bride" (1999) and tearjerker "Stepmom" (1998) and "Mona Lisa Smile" (2003). I don't even like to think of movies as "chick flicks" or "guy movies". I only like to think of movies as "good" or "bad".

"Eat Pray Love" is a dishonest movie. It offers a strange message to women and shows the rich have too much time on their hands. They can vanish from the world for a year to look for a man.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

86th Annual Oscar Predictions!


It is that time of year again, for me to dust off my crystal ball or look into my magic mirror on the wall, and try to guess what mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will make this year at the 86th annual Academy Awards tomorrow night.

If you've read my Oscar predictions in the past, you know my reasoning for deciding which film will win has nothing to do with the quality of the film, i.e. "such and such movie is good therefore it will win". The merits of a particular film has nothing to do with it winning an award or even being nominated. The Oscars are a popularity contest. The Academy is also very image conscious and prefer to make decisions based upon political correctness and liberal ideology. I apologize if I am shattering anyone's belief that the Academy only cares about the quality of the film and the outside world means nothing to them.

The voters of the Academy are, believe it or not, people. Mind you, not smart people, but people nonetheless. The social and economic conditions of the world are on their mind. Hollywood likes to present itself as a progressive institution.

This year I will do something a little different. Often readers mistake predictions with my personal choice. So, to clarify, I will offer my predictions as well as my preference. Then there will be no confusion.

BEST PICTURE

And the nominees are: 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street

First a disclosure. I have only seen eight of the nine nominated films. The one I haven't seen is Dallas Buyers Club.

Now that that is out of the way, I would say we have a three way race between 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. Wall Street because it is timely and deals with corrupt CEOs and income inequality which liberals plans on making a campaign issue. American Hustle because the Academy likes the film's director David O' Russell. Many people felt his "Silver Lining Playbook" (2012) should have won best picture last year and it has the most nominations of the night, a total of 10 (tied with Gravity). And 12 Years A Slave because it feels important and deals with race, a theme the Academy likes to celebrate. See "Crash" (2005) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989).

What hurts The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is a Martin Scorsese film. Yes, Scorsese is a great film-maker. One of the best working today. But, the Academy doesn't like to give him awards. They have no problem nominating him, they can't deny his talent, but, winning an award is something else. His "Taxi Driver" (1976) never won nor did nor did "Raging Bull" (1980), "GoodFellas" (1990), "Gangs of New York" (2003), "The Aviator" (2004), "Shutter Island" (2010) or "Hugo" (2011). His film "The Departed" (2006) is his only picture to date to win best picture and win a directing award for Scorsese. Even though it would send a nice liberal Hollywood message if it won, the Scorsese hurdle might be too much to overcome.

No, the Oscar will go to 12 Years A Slave. In the Academy's eyes it is a respectable choice. It is a movie which screams important and Oscar.

My Prediction - 12 Years A Slave
My Preference - The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST DIRECTOR

And the nominees are: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), David O' Russell (American Hustle) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Generally speaking the best director Oscar winner is usually the person who directed the best picture Oscar. There have been exceptions to this rule. last year for example "Argo" (2012) won best picture but the film's director, Ben Affleck, wasn't even nominated. Steven Spielberg won the best director award for "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) when the best picture Oscar went to "Shakespeare in Love" (1998).

Still I am a man of tradition and I think history will repeat itself. The only other possible exception would be Alfonso Cuaron. Gravity was a big money maker and it is tied with the most nominations for the night. It doesn't feel like a best picture Oscar winner to me, but, the Academy may want to honor it in same way and may feel this is the way to do it, to honor Cuaron for the impressive effects used to make the movie.

My Prediction - Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
My Preference - Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

BEST ACTOR

And the nominees are: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofer (12 Years A Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

At one point Bruce Dern was considered a lock on this award. Many insiders in the business said it was the performance of a lifetime for Dern. Heaven knows the Academy is not above giving a "pity" Oscar to individuals they feel they wrongly passed over throughout the years. But now things don't seem so certain.

What is going to determine the outcome of this race is how well 12 Years A Slave does. Will it sweep everything it is nominated for? Will its best picture win carry over into other categories? If so, of course Ejiofer wins. If not than it is DiCaprio's to lose.

My Prediction - Chiwetel Ejiofer (12 Years A Slave)
My Preference - Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

BEST ACTRESS

And the nominees are: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)  

Not much to discuss here. Cate Blanchett will win.

My Prediction - Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
My Preference - Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

And the nominees are: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbinder (12 Years A Slave), Johan Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

As in the best actor category this all depends on how well 12 Years A Slave does. Will Michael Fassbinder be carried in a sweep? If not his only real competition is Bradley Cooper.

My Prediction - Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
My Preference - Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

And the nominees are: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and June Squibb (Nebraska)

There seems to be a growing sentimental vibe in Squibb's favor. Many feel it could be the upset of the night but I am just not convinced it will happen. Roberts has been out of the Oscar race for a very long time and I haven't heard anyone suggest she stands much of a chance. Nyong'o seems to have been carried along for the 12 Years A Slave sweep. Lawrence dominates American Hustle. I am reluctant to call it a "supporting" role

My Prediction - Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
My Preference - Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

And the nominees are: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Craig Borten-Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club), Spike Jonze (Her), Bob Nelson (Nebraska), Eric Warren Singer - David O' Russell (American Hustle)

There has been too much bad press against Allen in the news lately and it may hurt his chances. Again, the Academy is image conscious. This could be the race the Academy honors O' Russell. Still, I called Spike Jonze's Her the love story of our time and placed it on my top ten list. But does Jonze have any pull in Hollywood to get the votes?

My Prediction - Eric Warren Singer - David O' Russell (American Hustle)
My Preference - (tie) Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) / Spike Jonze (Her)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

And the nominees are: Steve Coogan - Jeff Pope (Philomena), Richard Linklater - Julie Delpy - Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) and Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)

I am surprised Before Midnight managed to receive a nomination. It is a very good movie but I thought the Academy would forget about it. It was released fairly early in the year.

I am still going with my theory 12 Years A Slave will have a sweeping effect.

My Prediction - John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
My Preference - Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

And the nominees are: The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia) and Omar (Palestine)

Not all of these movies are open in Chicago yet. So I am at a disadvantage. I usually am in this category. Years ago the most popular choice would win because of the Academy's rules. Voters were not obligated to see all the nominated films. Then the rules changed and since that time, once in a while, there will be an unexpected winner. The big upset was the Cannes Palm d'Or winner "Blue is the Warmest Color" wasn't nominated. That would have been the most popular foreign language film of the year and a favorite to win.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunt. I called it one of the best films of 2013 though The Great Beauty has a lot of support. And it is Italian. The Academy has a fondness for French and Italian cinema.

My Prediction - The Great Beauty (Italy)
My Preference - The Hunt (Denmark)

BEST ANIMATED FILM

And the nominees are: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen and The Wind Rises

This is really a two movie race. You have the Disney film Frozen and Miyazaki's The Wind Rises. Disney and/or Pixar are usually the favorites to win. Frozen made a lot of money and some critics liked it, though it wasn't a very good year for animated movies. What makes The Wind Rises a contender is it may be Hayao Miyazaki's final film. This will be the Academy's last time to honor him. His "Spirited Away" (2002) won in this category.

My Prediction - Frozen
My Preference - Frozen

And there you have it. My predictions for the 86th annual Academy Awards. You can watch the show tomorrow night, March 2nd at 7:30 (central time) as it will be hosted by Ellen DeGeneres.